CORDOBA, Spain — At the Jewish museum in the small tourist town of Cordoba, the most valuable artifact on display is an Inquisition document issued more than 100 years after the Jews were expelled from Spain.
The document, handwritten in 1598, bestowed all the rights of an “old Christian” onto “a new Christian” — giving the so-called “new Christian” the right to ride a horse, go to university, and become a priest, explains museum guide Ramon Fernandez.
It is possible that the man who received this certificate was the descendant of converted Jews, Fernandez says.
“After converting, Jews didn’t have the same rights as all Christians. People who converted and their offspring were not allowed to carry weapons, ride a horse, behave like a nobleman, dress in silk or wear silver and gold for five generations,” Fernandez explains.
“This document was probably very expensive. It gives a Christian name, but it was the kind of document [that might be] talking about a former Jew,” he says.
The other items in the Casa de Sefarad museum are more recent — and don’t originate in Spain. Instead, the small Jewish museum presents a hodgepodge of artifacts from countries where Sephardic Jews eventually settled after their expulsion.
Here visitors can see colorful clay bowls with the Star of David from Morocco; a coal burner from a synagogue in Istanbul; and a Jewish woman’s dress from North Africa embroidered with golden thread. The dress is significant because the Jewish gold embroidery may be the inspiration for the golden thread that now decorates the costumes of Spanish priests and bull-fighters, museum guides tell visitors. Nothing in the museum is 500 years old. The oldest Jewish item is a Moroccan stone Hanukkah lamp from the 18th century.
As for Jewish artifacts from the time when Jews actually lived in Spain — the museum doesn’t have any.
“You would be looking for something that doesn’t exist. There is no material footprint [of Jewish life in Spain] at all,” Fernandez says. “We’re talking about 1,500 years of continued Jewish presence in Spain,” he says, yet nothing survived.
“A small part was taken away, some was hidden, but the majority was actively destroyed. The Christians wanted to eliminate even the memory of Jewish presence,” he says.
Visitors can expect a similar experience at the other Jewish museums in Spain. In the last 10 years, private Jewish museums have opened in practically every Spanish city that tourists are likely to visit.
There are synagogue museums in Barcelona and in Ubeda, Sephardic museums in Girona and in Seville, and two Jewish museums in Granada. But many visitors to these museums might not realize that the items on display are not actually Spanish.
At the synagogue museum in Barcelona, the tour guide displays annoyance when a visitor asks how they know that the building was actually a synagogue.
It is because one of the walls is strangely facing east, the museum guide says, after insisting that the visitor leave a “donation” to enter the small room that displayed a small collection of Jewish religious items from Morocco. (Because there are no Hebrew inscriptions on stone or other archaeological evidence, Fernandez says he isn’t convinced that the Barcelona and Ubeda Jewish museums are actually former synagogues. There are only three confirmed synagogues in Spain, he says: two in Toledo, and one in Cordoba.)
In Granada, at the Palacio de los Olvidados museum, which translates as “The Palace of the Forgotten,” there is no shortage of old Jewish things on display: a colorful handwritten Hebrew book, a metal dish with Hebrew letters, and some old menorahs.
But the explanations next to the items don’t mention the objects’ provenance, giving visitors the impression that the artifacts relate to Jewish life in Spain prior to the expulsion in 1492. Even the Lonely Planet “Discover Spain” travel guide, published in 2016, says that the museum displays Jewish relics “amassed from around Spain.”
However, when questioned, the staff at the museum admit that practically all of the items displayed are from Morocco — although they are not entirely sure where each item came from.
The museum also has an old set of keys that Sephardic Jews allegedly carried with them when they were expelled from Spain, hoping to one day return to their homes. But this is a legend, admits museum tour guide Sara Alvarez. The word “Morocco” is not mentioned once in the descriptions of the artifacts on display.
The collection of Granada’s other Jewish museum, located in the private home of Batsheva (Beatriz) Chevalier-Sola, who comes from a Sephardic family, offers still less.
Chevalier-Sola has her grandfather’s tefillin (phylacteries) on display, and a 19th century Ashkenazi prayer book, donated to the museum by the Chabad Hasidic sect.
Her husband, Joseph ben Abraham Camarero, converted to Judaism. He contributed a painting he made depicting the casting out of Jews from Spain, and there is also video about the expulsion. Again, there are no ancient Spanish Jewish artifacts.
Still, this doesn’t stop visitors from being generous with donations. According to Chevalier-Sola, some tourists leave behind as much as 200 euros to support the museum.
Indeed, the fact that the items on display at Spain’s Jewish museums are not from Spain doesn’t seem to bother museum-goers, many of whom are Jewish. What matters is that the museums exist, they say.
“I think it’s very nice. I liked it. I’m grateful that they are starting to recognize the Sephardic Jews after what happened to them,” says Pamela Silverman, a 60-year-old social worker from Houston, Texas, after visiting the Sephardic museum in Cordoba. “It’s out of guilt about what happened to the Jews. I think it shows progress.”
Nahum Shlomo, a 60-year-old Israeli tourist of Sephardic origin who visited the Cordoba museum with his wife, Ora, also enjoyed a positive impression. He was especially glad to see the information about the life of Maimonides, who was born in Cordoba.
“Nice place. It’s our history, it’s nice to see this. It’s special for us,” says Nahum, whose family is Iraqi. “This is the first place we went to in Cordoba.”
Still, if you are interested in seeing something authentic that dates back to the Jewish presence in Spain before the expulsions of 1492, you might want to stop by the archaeology museums instead.
The archaeology museum in Cordoba possesses a Jewish gravestone from the mid-ninth century. According to the explanation written next to it, this gravestone in memory of a man named Yehudah bar Akon is the only Jewish item that survived from the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled Cordoba between 756 -1031.
At the Barcelona City History Museum, you can see a medieval Hebrew inscription on a stone, marking the construction of the city’s Jewish hospital in the 13th century.
As for Jewish museums, Spain’s most reputable one is probably the Sephardic Museum in Toledo, operated by the government and located inside the country’s most impressive former synagogue.
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